Let’s open a yellowed copy of the Omaha World-Herald, dated Monday, March 18, 1957. Featured is a picture of TV cowboy Hugh O’Brian with a small boy, taken during his hospital stay. O’Brian, of Wyatt Earp fame, on tour through America’s heartland, made a goodwill stop at the hospital. A photo op and local interest story commemorate the special meeting between the actor and the boy.
Inside a cheaply furnished rental at 4015 South 23rd Street in Omaha, Gunsmoke played on the black and white television. In the promo, John Wayne praised the show, saying that it was “adult and life-like,” the best on TV. My 23-year-old mother was in the kitchen. I was a toddler, and my infant sister and I were propped on the sofa. Our older brother Brad, not four-years-old, was sprawled on the floor in front of the television set. He got up and went into our parents’ bedroom. Pulling out the bureau drawers to create stairs, he climbed up and took a 22-caliber pistol from its place, nestled in his father’s underwear. Then he crawled backwards, gun in hand.
A 22-caliber pistol is simple to fire, it is said. It has a smooth pull that requires no readjustments for accuracy. Brad wasn’t strong enough to fire with his trigger finger like TV cowboys, so he pressed the barrel hard into his stomach. With his thumbs he cocked the hammer back and pulled the trigger.
The gun made fire when the bullet came out. The bullet went into his abdomen.
“Mommy kept turning me over looking at my back. She turned me over three or four times.”
In the ambulance she went out of her mind crying. “The police tried to blame me for the shooting!” she said later, chagrined. She explained to the reporter, “Brad is simply crazy about guns.”
Our father loved guns too. He’s quoted as saying that he kept one as protection for his family.
“Imagine,” my mother would coo after coming home from the hospital, “meeting Hugh O’Brian!”
When a bullet enters a body there is bleeding and the possibility of hypovolemic shock. Another danger is hypoxemia. When a bullet enters the lung from any angle it can cause a collapse, resulting in a lack of oxygen to the brain. Then there’s hydrostatic shock, when a penetrating projectile produces remote wounding beyond the direct hit, through a hydraulic effect in liquid-filled tissue. These shock waves can produce remote damage more quickly than they produce than blood loss. This is common in bullets that enter the body fast and light rather than slow and heavy.
Soon after Brad came home from the hospital, our father loaded film into his camera and shot a slew of obligatory pictures of his three children. These were meant to appear cozy, to offer visual evidence that his little boy was fine. All three of us were bathed and bunched into our pajamas. My little sister dangled from a swing, a parachutist from a spire, venez m'aider. I wouldn’t have known what to do with the absurdity of his attention. In pictures I wear an awkward expression, uneasy and self-conscious. My eyes plead bewilderment and distress, are on the hard glittering verge of tears.
Although vestiges remain, I can’t return to the scene. The fragments on the table in front of me are a few snapshots, an 8x10 glossy, and a newspaper clipping. Of course, there’s also the wound. It’s not my wound, though on bad days it causes me to limp. I’m trying to arrange these artifacts into a composite. I can’t rely solely on dreams, the pieces in coded form, like a bruise fading from black to blue, to green, then yellow along the edges, dried blood attached to stitches sealing the place of penetration. The pictures are a hieroglyph of sorts, although they’re meant to mislead us.
Small children can’t measure catastrophic damages. The distance between the barrel of the gun and my brother’s body was nonexistent. The distance between Washington state and Nebraska is 1,436 miles, a 22 hour drive. There’s a starting point, a trajectory, with stops, starts, and switchbacks, roads that can be driven at breakneck speeds. This dogleg of a trip can and can’t be traced on a map. Some roads no longer exist. They were replaced by superhighways four lanes wide, more or less a straight shot between two points. Old buildings have been torn down. The walls and doors have [probably] changed. I haven’t made my way back there. I can’t say for sure.
Disclaimer: Solipsism is the erroneous belief that I alone am real, or that my experiences are real, while all else—physical objects or others—are part of my consciousness, a manifestation of God speaking to me. This notion depends entirely my beliefs about the reliability of my internal mental state, without need to provide external evidence for these beliefs. This might describe a child’s imagination, someone suffering severe delusions, or perhaps from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The state of solipsism is based on three suppositions: I can know the contents of my own mind the most intimately. They are, after all, my thoughts and experiences; no proven link between the mental and the physical is required; these experiences are entirely private. That is to say, these experiences are not necessarily shared by anyone else. If fewer than three of the suppositions hold, the question that you should ask yourself: Is the narrator reliable? If only one of these suppositions hold, then the question is, whose story do you believe? Are childish memories to be trusted? What if there’s more than one child? Would two be sufficient? Are three enough?
If we rely on the explanations my parents offer, if they are the doorway to the past, we might indeed say that one (or all) of the children made up stories. The connection between us proves troubling. Before he disappeared for good, my father said bitterly, “I tried everything to separate you two. You and your sister were a private club. No one got inside.”
Both parents have cause to fear our shared memories, daily witness to their erratic behavior, and an increasingly dangerous household. Because we exist, and may in fact outlast them, they have been unable to rewrite our history. We refused to turn against each other, though it’s true that our father succeeded for a time in making us violent. We all agree on that.
That brings us squarely to realism. We understand that the world exists beyond our perception of it. Objects are mediated by our ideas. However, direct realism presumes an immediate relation between my siblings and I, as observers, and our parents as the observed. If we wish to avoid the appearance of solipsistic conclusions, we must test the facts as they might be perceived by eyewitnesses. My father, unwittingly, confirmed that our views of him were based, at least partially, in a shared truth. He acknowledged his role as aggressor from the opposing side of the chasm.
When my therapist asks me, “What are you making up about this? Tell me what room you’re in,” she does so because she was not in the room at that time. She’s never surprised by what I tell her. Although we all agree on the facts, my conclusions are formed as I write.
What does not change is my grandmother’s ramshackle farmhouse, which remains fixed between locust trees, and in summer, hidden from the road behind a veil of lilacs. The house has settled into the field, like an aged horse dozing, patient. We’ve driven that road often enough that I know it in my sleep. It still winds below the bluff where St. Michael’s perches like Rapunzel’s castle. These are the signals that I'm close to home.
In those days when the car made an abrupt right onto the dirt road and crunched to a stop in the gravel drive, my grandmother was there, holding the metal porch railing with both hands, a scarf tied to her head. We hauled ourselves out of the cramped backseat, misshapen and numb. Even in shade her lawn was brown and brittle. The well was iffy. She made do with inches of water as she made do with everything. That summer we bathed together or in quick succession until the water was murky.
Our tall, angular grandmother was perpetually innocent, though she assessed us with observant eyes. She never nattered on about slipcovers for the furniture or paint for the walls. “I say, you kids come on in here.”
She held the door open as we straggled up the steps with our things. We dropped them by the door and went into the kitchen to the small table to eat a meal she’d prepared before our arrival.
We knew, because she told us, that our grandfather died before we were born. He was holding a lit cigarette between his fingers when suddenly his heart gave out. By her own admission, our mother—then seventeen—had stomped up the steep staircase to her room, muttering in her usual huff, “I wish you were dead!” Then he was. Just like that. Death came and went with so little seismographic disturbance that the ash continued to lengthen on the tip of his cigarette.
After he was buried, cocooned in rough skins, his widow ordered the farmhouse lifted and set on blocks. Her teen-age sons cut a trench into the earth, dug the easement with shovels, suspended ragged plank steps down into the pit below hundred-year-old floor joists. The house held together. The cellar was little more than the heave of dirt and layers of dark rock.
Now in the basement spiders hide in empty canning jars, snare and sting their prey and spin their webs snug around motionless bodies. Birds fly down the chimney. They become trapped and they die. Flies gather at the small dirty windows and come up through the vents. For a time the birds and insects lie in state, silent, puffy, lacquered hard and spun tight. Eventually they decompose.
The basement has always been the coolest part of the house. Brad roomed down there that summer. On hot afternoons, we lounged on a solitary mattress at the bottom of the stairs. I bounced up and down. My brother stabbed his pocketknife into the mattress. “Stop jumping,” he said.
I didn’t stop.
With perfect timing he plunged the knife into my foot. The scar is an anchor.
The word entomology means "to cut to pieces” or “to engrave or segment,” arriving somehow at the notion of insect. Pins affix the specimen to a mounting board where it remains inert.
The door to the upstairs was old and scarred under layers of chipped pastel paint. It was kept closed against winter’s cold and summer’s heat. At the top of the staircase was a triptych framing pressed flowers that once matched the lavender of the wallpaper, now bleached transparent by the sun. The two large bedrooms were open. We sweltered at night under angled eaves. In morning we froze. We were forced from sagging beds and raced across the linoleum, down the stairs to the bathroom and to the kitchen below. The door swung open easily.
I count backwards. My mind remembers my grandmother as she once was on Sunday mornings before church, standing at the sink in her yellowed slip, clutching a faded red towel to her bosom. She is herself and not the demented child I cared for in her last years.
“This is my house!” she says in her palsied voice.
She’s emphatic. She has the modesty of a child and the propriety of the morally upright. Her reedy tremor belies her strength. I feel the territorial threat in her words. In my dream, we’re in opposition. I struggle against her invasion. Where’s the property line between the living and the dead?
Abundance: snapped beans, canned peaches and cherry jam.
Lord grant us your indulgence.
The Cleansing: her kitchen, moist and extravagant with apricots lifted from a boiling bath, transferred to a chipped enamel basin, filled with cold water.
The absolution of our sins.
The Healing: she slips the halves from their dusty velvet skins, sliced and slithered into jars, enveloped in sugary syrup, anoints the lip of each, culling the lids with tongs, and placing them gingerly over open mouths;.
A repentant heart.
Make Radiant: the rims tightened and turned back one half rotation, the jars settled into a large open kettle.
The consolation of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Set the timer.
We slammed out of the screen door and loitered in the trees, laid ourselves on the ground, mesmerized by the pungent odor of pine needles baking in the afternoon sun. Rows of canned fruit lined the counter, pinging. Once cooled, the jars were taken downstairs to be brought up again at winter’s dearth. We’d be gone by then, the car backing down the drive, and us, on the road to somewhere else. I’d stare out the window at the passing telephone poles, knifing them in half with my eyes, toppling them to the ground.
There’s no paperwork to corroborate the details of the scar down Brad’s abdomen. In the newspaper clipping his pupils are dilated. He wears the actor’s cowboy hat and asks to hold his six-shooter. The actor, flashing his toothy grin for the camera, keeps his gun in his holster and warns the little buckaroo to be careful with side arms.
I asked my mother, “While you were wringing your hands at Brad’s bedside and ogling Hugh O’Brian, who took care of Diana and me?”
A neighbor whose name she doesn't remember.
“How long was he in the hospital?” I’ve waited too long to ask. Now in her 70s, she can no longer recall petty details.
She remembers Hugh O’Brian. “That guy was so handsome I wanted to die!”
The CDC reports that during the years 1950-1993, the overall annual death rate for U.S. children, aged 15 years and younger, declined substantially, reflecting decreases in deaths associated with unintentional injuries, pneumonia, influenza, cancer, and congenital anomalies. But during that same period, childhood homicide rates tripled and suicide rates quadrupled.
After my brother returned from the hospital, my father provided a single response to the accident. In snapshots Brad’s face was lit up. He’d somehow wiggled to the center of benign paternal attention. No charges were pending. There were no unusual bruises, no welts, no knuckles cracking against his little skull. There was no record of my father calling his son a little shit, a turd, a bastard. Brad, in his fire-dog pajamas, grinned widely at the camera with his tiny square teeth, his hands at his waist and his feet spread wide. He’d cheated the paralysis or death that would’ve followed had a bullet lodged in one of his vital organs or severed his spine.
I’m the middle child, a parenthetical afterthought, sandwiched between the incontrovertible bookends of more urgent events. My sister was a question mark at the end of a convoluted sentence. Neither had a bullet lodged in our bodies, and would not, in any case, be the featured attraction. Intimacy in this family would be measured in units of crises, which would always circulate around the boy.
I've often wondered what carefully scripted 1950s cinematic role my parents were acting out. My sister and I were the extras, the incidental detritus, moths hovering around the periphery of their brighter, better future. These characters were chronically over-dressed for their parts. He, in a silk smoking jacket, a David Niven type; she in a silk brocade cocktail dress, the plunging décolletage punctuated with a gigantic fake emerald at her cleavage, in case anyone missed the point. He was the man. She was the woman.
O’Brian’s smiling face soon became the story of my brother’s gunshot wound. The actor added a pleasing Western aroma. Brad’s scar passed for cool among schoolboys. The vertical welt suggested that he could at any time unzip his skin, step unhurt from its confines, and morph into a superhero. In a red towel for a cape, he practiced for his new role. He was the poster child in our family for normal, safe, sound, and happy. He was all that a little boy should be, yet our father never stopped beating him.
Scene change: My father struggled to learn Russian at the University of Syracuse. In second grade I struggled to read the words of Go, Dog. Go! My parents continued to play the role of him and her, at least for a while longer. There was something wrong but I didn’t know how to say it.
Scene change: Three weeks after the new school year began we followed my father to Texas on a Greyhound bus. Mrs. Price, my third grade teacher at John Van Dyne Elementary, had looked startled when I told her we were moving to San Antonio because my father was going to spy school in San Angelo. The teacher at the new school hit me in the face. I couldn’t learn arithmetic. My mother liked to dance the Texas two-step at Floor’s Country Store or at The Silver Dollar Saloon. In Texas, children can be in bars at night, playing pinball, drinking Shirley Temples or dancing to big haired country music bands. My mother loved Texas. My father came to visit some weekends.
Scene change: He dropped us off on the front steps of the farmhouse then sped away in his white Corvair, on his way to a survival school at Stead, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. That’s where he caught rabbits and grasshoppers for food. It was a game. He was a hero. When the pretend enemy caught him they kept him in a box. When my father returned, he carried a diamond willow walking stick with a human skull carved at the top.
Scene change: We’re moving to Fairbanks, Alaska. My sister and I celebrate our birthdays early. I carry my present, a Midge doll in her stewardess uniform, onto the plane. In Fairbanks, my father takes us straight to the two bedroom duplex he has rented. The powdered milk in the otherwise empty refrigerator is in a whiskey bottle. We guzzle it straight from the bottle. Powdered milk tastes bad.
Scene change: My father is assigned to the 6985th Security Squadron. He’s on flying status. We aren't supposed to know where he’s going or when he’ll be back. We know. He flies missions in a KC-135 off the coast of Scotland into Russian airspace. A picture of Lucy van Pelt, her mouth wide open and her fist in the air, is painted on the side of the plane. The radio equipment in the nosecone intercepts Soviet transmissions about the Vietnam War. Sometimes my father’s crew flies out of Okinawa looking for downed pilots. These missions are flown close to the surface of the water in a helicopter because they’re looking for bodies. This is a secret too. I practice saying my father’s serial number and rank in case the Russians invade. I wonder what will happen to us when they come. We play concentration camp and work out elaborate tortures.
My mother is disgusted. She says we’re so lazy, we stink. “With two daughters in the house, no son of mine will ever wash dishes.”
I ask, “What did you want to be when you grew up?”
She becomes exasperated and angry, “I don’t know, I can’t remember!” Impatiently she prods my greasy hair into place with her pointed red fingernails. “You’d be pretty if you tried harder!”
My brother smirks at this obvious joke. Apparently a tight angora sweater will not be my golden ticket. I will not be vastly improved by the lipstick and mascara I steal from the base exchange. I should probably get good at something because I’m flunking sixth grade.
My mother likes pretty things. She dances at night with a G.I. named Spook. He’s 23. She’s a blond now and wears mini-dresses. My father wears a toupee, a Nehru jacket and a surfer’s cross. He drives 90 mph in his Grand Prix with suicide doors. He tends bar at the NCO Club, sells popcorn at the base theater, has a housecleaning business that keeps him out all night. Spook offers to babysit so my parents can go out dancing. Spook and Brad play strip poker in the basement. They lay in bed together. Spook rubs Brad’s back hard.
My brother gets his driving permit and takes his turn behind the wheel when my father drinks too much. My father now sits in the back between my sister and me. I pretend not to notice when he touches me. I look down at my feet when he curls himself around my body, his hands crushing my breasts.
He says, “I’m not a man anymore.”
It’s my job to convince him it’s not true. “Oh, Daddy,” I say.
My parents give lots of parties. The house is filled with drunken G.I.s. They throw-up in the snow, lose their coats, their way. When they finally go home, my mother begs my father for sex. I’m supposed to be asleep. He’s had vasectomy. He’s switched to S/M leather pornography. The pictures come in brown envelopes from Scotland. She shows me the black and white glossies. The naked women have dark pubic hair. They have leather strips with cut away parts that show their nipples. They hold whips and wear high heels.
She waves them in his face when he comes through the front door. She’s shrieking, “What the hell are these?”
Guilt can be gotten rid of by talking, and talking, and talking. Now the house is filled with their shrill voices.
I read his books on Transcendental Meditation, articles about Edgar Cayce in his Argosy Magazines, and the cheap pamphlets he brings home on casting spells. My friends and I try one of the spells. We cast a spell on the boy I love to call on the telephone. When the phone rings we freak out. For my 12th birthday my parents give me a Ouija board and a sheer, DayGlo pink nightie. My father practices hypnotizing me until he gets it right, and soon I’m the featured attraction at his parties. I inch away from his drunken grasp. I’m the blur that flows out from under him. I never question crazy anymore. A gun pointed at my face causes no distress. I register no alarm. Whoever I am checks out until it’s over. I invent my own reasons. I keep my own secrets.
My therapist questions me about PTSD.
Q: Do you have nightmares?
I awaken with a start and can’t get back sleep. I wash the dishes in my grandmother’s kitchen, make coffee and toast as if day had begun, and was not what we call the wee hours. The dream paralysis holds the frayed edges of my blanket, that awful weight of someone, their long arms and legs, pale fingertips touching my face and breasts, a penis, huge as the fetus pulled from my womb, teeth glowing under a black light. In former nightmares there had never been a body—that breathtaking weight, my heart thudding awake. I bolt backwards from the bed. Even in sleep I’m ready to run. The nightmare finally subsides.
In the case of multiple traumas, the PTSD victim may become hyper-vigilant and suffer anxiety attacks. Traumas overlap. For instance, one remembered event can trigger another. The past intrudes on the present. The impact goes well beyond depression. A sense of disorientation may become so acute that the victim does not know where they are. My therapist says that when this happens I’m to place both feet squarely on the floor, hold a small object such as a pencil in one hand, and concentrate on breathing. It helps.
In dreams, landmarks explode or disintegrate. As in pinball, for instance, a plunger attached to a coiled spring is pulled back and releases a ball that skitters across a series of bells, lights, and flippers that knock it farther onto the game board. There’s no way to keep the ball from hitting the wall up ahead. In fact, that’s the point of the game. The walls are out of sight, around the next corner, and the next, and the next. When we hit we’re moving way too fast. Ding, Ding, Ding.
The scene changes again. If extinction is the learned response reduced over time because of an absence of stimuli, what is it called when the results are the same but the clues change continually?
Q: Do you startle without reason?
My parents fight in the next room. Muffled, angry words rumble dangerously, like wasps. Her voice filters through the uneven texture of the walls. “What are you going to do with the gun?”
At first my sister and I are not able to make out her words. We repeat them until we grasp their meaning.
If he’s near where my sister plays he slams her face to the wall, her skull reverberates when his knuckles crack down hard. She’s guilty of all crimes now. He pulls off his belt. His hand grasps her arm as he whips her around in a circle. He whales the tar out of her. “I guaran-damn-tee you! Now you’ll learn!”
He holds a .357 Magnum in his hands. If he’s got a gun, he’ll use it.
Dissociation is most commonly experienced as detachment from one’s emotions, body and immediate surroundings, a “compartmentalization of experience.” Under normal circumstances, a person's senses are interconnected. However, in dissociation sensory perceptions are fragmented. It may be as innocent as becoming lost in thought, or it can be a series of disorders in response to severe psychological trauma. Dissociation is a coping mechanism that allows one to live somewhat normally, at least some of the time.
I can’t outrun my brother. When he’s home, I keep out of sight. He retreats temporarily, comes out of nowhere. He’s always on the attack. I hide behind locked doors. He picks locks with ease. I can’t get away, so I try to reduce the angle of attack. I throw knives, I swear, I spit and scream. Screaming doesn’t stop him. He wrestles me to the floor, laughing. I use my knees, fists, a sharp blow to his face, gouge his eyes, anything to make him to leave me alone. I stay away until after dark and then slip in quietly. I avoid lying down. It does no good to pretend to sleep or to play dead. He’s always watching me.
I startle when I see my brother in strangers. Shoulders held together by scar tissue, the familiar taut wound over cut away cartilage, the scar drawing me in and holding me at the point of incision, a line I follow involuntarily with my eyes. Long before I knew that bodies could exhibit perfection, I was formed around the exquisite beauty of the wounded.
I’m drawn to the similarities between the elongated welt on my brother’s torso and the vertical scar down the front of my husband’s naked body. A flesh track separates the left side from the right. He is evidence of another country caught in civil war. In 1964 doctors forced his ribs open in order to stitch shut the holes in his heart. He tells me, as if it makes any difference, that he was one of the first children to undergo open-heart surgery and live, but that’s not true. By 1964 the operation was becoming more routine. The first successful open heart surgery was performed on a four-year-old girl in March, 1956.
They knew then what they know now. Where there’s one defect of the heart, inevitably, there’s two. Although bicuspid aortic valve disease is present at birth, usually it’s not diagnosed until adulthood because the valve can function for years without symptoms. My husband's heart finally revolted against three packs a day. They let him in the Army because nobody wanted to serve after Vietnam. The Army took whatever human flotsam they could get: guys with heart problems, drop-outs, those avoiding jail sentences, and women.
The heart surgeon drew a curved arrow on the x-ray pointing to the tiny stitches, which resembled a cartographer’s symbol for a miniature railroad track with tiny starts and stops. The track, one-eighth-inch, equals a life lifted delicately from a jagged, submerged cavern. The blood vessels in his heart end abruptly and on film look like a downed tree.
Like my brother, my husband also medicates to avoid the regrettable acts of being alive. Soon after his second diagnosis he ricocheted erratically across a map. Eventually he landed in Florida where he received a valve transplant costing $500,000 in taxpayer dollars. He bought himself a big house with a swimming pool, a Colombian girlfriend, and downloaded a slew of pictures onto his new laptop, mostly of pubescent Guatemalan girls, legs splayed, bald vaginas exposed, small hands fingering their labia, the other clutching little rounded breasts, brown nipples peeking coyly through their parted fingers, all eager with desire for him. “They don’t remind me of my daughters,” he says. “I take what I can get.”
My husband’s wounds are a signifier, a map branded in vellum. These familiar carvings are the representation of my known world.